Does the Merneptah Stele Contradict Archaeology?

Many times I have told a classroom full of undergraduates, “I thank God every day for the Merneptah Stele.”  They no doubt thought I was a strange duck, but this crazy claim didn’t help my reputation. 

It’s not that I don’t like the other famous inscriptions that relate to biblical history.  I remember one of my professors saying that there was no extrabiblical evidence for the “house of David” and then a few months later (in the summer of 1993), the Tel Dan Inscription was discovered.  I appreciate the Black Obelisk which has a depiction of King Jehu bowing down and paying tribute to the Assyrian monarch.  And I love to point out the Ketef Hinnom silver amulets in the Israel Museum as the earliest portions of Scripture ever found.  But I don’t thank God every day for any of these.

The Merneptah Stele is a 10 feet- (3 m-) tall monumental inscription that records the victory hymn of Pharaoh Merneptah (1213-1203 BC).  Most of the lengthy poem is about his campaign against Libyan tribes, but at the end he describes some victories in Canaan.  One of the enemies he claims to have thoroughly obliterated is the people of Israel.

Merneptah’s boast has had the opposite effect: instead of destroying Israel, he has actually preserved the fact of their existence at that time.  Everyone agrees that Israel existed sometime later, but without the Merneptah Stele, very few scholars would acknowledge that they existed at this time.  In fact, it’s my opinion that even today, 114 years after the discovery of the Merneptah Stele, most scholars don’t properly account for this inscription in their reconstruction of the origin of the people of Israel. 

That’s the point of my brief essay posted today at The Bible and Interpretation.  I’d be gratified if you’d give it a read.  Maybe I’m not as crazy to give thanks as my students thought.


6 thoughts on “Does the Merneptah Stele Contradict Archaeology?

  1. The lack of archaeological evidence may be a result of Israel's choice to dwell among the inhabitants of the land (Judges 3:5). The pottery record would always be contaminated and therefore, hard to find.

  2. Great job, Todd! I just submitted this remark on Robert Deutsch's article at BibleInterp:

    It's ironic that Todd Bolen published an article on the Merneptah Stele this week, showing that the scientific excavations produced a later date than what is obvious from the stele. And here in your article is a (supposed) scientific excavation producing an earlier date than what is obvious from the antiquities market.

  3. I totally agree about the importance of the Merneptah stele, which establishes a definite time by which the Children of Israel must have already had significant settlements in Canaan for at least a couple of generations.
    I have been writing a series of novels (4 total planned, 2 already published) that will ultimately cover the time period from the entry of Joseph into Egypt, through the Exodus, in which I put together all the latest scientific findings in a new way, identifying Joseph with the Grand Vizier Yuya,who served two Pharaohs (Thutmosis IV and Amenhotep III), as described in Genesis. This links the Children of Israel with the late 18th dynasty royal family, as Yuya not only served as Vizier, but his children married into the royal family. His daughter, Tiye, married Amenhotep III and became Queen, while his younger son (who Joseph said on his deathbed would be greater than the older son) was the father-in-law and grandfather of kings and eventually became king, himself. The two books already published ("Nefertiti, Immortal Queen" and "The Lost Queen: Ankhsenamun, Widow of King Tutankhamun") are Books 2 & 3 of the series (which will be called "Sojourn in Egypt").
    The resulting timeline works out well with the archaeological data from Israel that show the establishment of small settlements in the central Judean hill country occurring by about the middle of the 13th century BCE (i.e., ~1250 BCE) by a new people whose kitchen middens contain almost no pig bones. (cf William Dever, "Who were the Israelites and Where Did They Come From?") This is consistent with the Exodus taking place around 1294 BCE, during the brief reign of Ramses I (NOT Ramses II!), as proposed by Ahmed Osman in his book, "Stranger in the Valley of the Kings". If the Israelites wandered in the desert for something close to the 40 years claimed in Exodus – allowing at least one generation for those who originally left Egypt to have died off – that puts them beginning to settle in Israel at just that time. It also allows time for them to have become well-established residents of Canaan by the time of Pharaoh Merneptah's 1208 BCE campaign.
    My two novels, "Nefertiti, Immortal Queen" and "The Lost Queen: Ankhsenamun, Widow of King Tutankhamun" are now available on Amazon.
    For more information on the Thutmosid royal family and their link to the Israelites, see my book websites,
    http://www.nefertiti-immortal-queen.com and http://www.lost-queen.com.
    Cheryl Fluty

  4. // by which the Children of Israel must have already had significant settlements in Canaan for at least a couple of generations.//

    Do you follow the Christian Biblical timeline or the Jewish who wrote the stories?
    Which shows that Joshua lived 1355-1245 BC
    According the Jews, Joseph was born 1562 – Became viceroy 1532 BC, his death is not indicated, but this gives that the Pharaoh who appointed him must be Ahmose aka Nebpehtyre 1550-1525 BC

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